23 years ago last Sunday, I became a Catholic. It was a significant step – but not the biggest decision I have made in my relationship with God. It was part of a journey – I’d wanted to become a Catholic for several years, attended Mass for a year-and-a-half, attended RCIA for 6 months, and made my First Confession the previous week. 14 April 1990 was the day when I made my First Communion and was Confirmed – and then the journey continued.
6 years ago next month, I was ordained as a Catholic Priest. It was a significant step – but not the biggest decision I have made in my relationship with God. It came only after 7 years of study in seminary and of training in pastoral placements. As another new priest once said to me, on ordination day, it’s as if a tap is turned around – instead of having a lot of stuff poured into you, you immediately have to start pouring out to others.
39 years ago, I was baptised, in an Anglican church. It was a significant step – but since I was only 9 months old at the time, it doesn’t count as any kind of decision in my relationship with God.
What, then WAS the biggest decision I have made in my relationship with God?
20 years ago, I said YES.
Yes to what?
Yes to everything.
If you use a computer, think of those dangerous moments where the computer asks you if it can move 289 files to the trashcan and you either have to check them all individually, or do the risky thing and click “Yes to everything!”
If you have ever written out a blank cheque, lent your car-keys to a teenager, or done a house-swap leaving near strangers with the run of your family home for a week, you’ll know the kind of thing I mean.
It’s that kind of open-ended commitment where you hope everything is going to turn out OK, but there’s that nagging doubt in the back of your mind…
In August, 1993, I was on a Youth Retreat being run by Youth 2000, the same group – though now run by different young people – which is coming to St David’s Sixth Form College next weekend. I was also two years into my undergraduate degree and beginning to wonder what to do next.
I was young.
I was male.
I was single.
I was Catholic.
What about the priesthood?
The thing is, although I knew I was saying no, I didn’t know WHY I was saying no. What was I afraid of?
I think, looking back, I was afraid that Jesus was going to ask me to do something I probably wouldn’t like. I’d have to do it, because he was God. And once I said yes, I was going to be miserable for the rest of my life.
During that retreat, one of the speakers invited us to take a silent hour in the afternoon, so I found myself a secluded spot on a riverbank and began to ponder.
I believed that Jesus, as God, was the smartest being in existence.
I believed that Jesus, as God, was the most loving being in existence, and couldn’t possibly want anything for me that would be bad for me.
I called Jesus, Lord. If I really meant that he was my Lord, that would mean I was saying I wanted him to be the person in charge of my life.
So… if Jesus is smarter than me, if Jesus will never choose anything which is not in my best interests, and if the Bible encourages me to call Jesus, “Lord”, I was faced with only one inexorable, inescapable, and incontrovertible conclusion: YES to everything.
So I prayed. And my prayer went something like this: “Jesus, I believe you are who the Bible says you are. I believe you love me and have my best interests at heart. From today onwards I will go where you ask me to go, do what you ask me to do. Whatever you ask – if you make it clear what you want, I will do it – even if it is the “priest thing”.
Well, back then it wasn’t the “priest thing”. I ended up in working in Nottingham on a gap year and then at Cardiff University for my PhD. But in 1997, the Lord showed me that it was time for the “priest thing” and here I am today, as your parish priest at St John Lloyd.
No two priests lead a parish in the same way. Each priest brings different gifts to the task. Some have a listening ear and are brilliant at binding up the broken-hearted. Others are community organisers, mobilising the masses to build parish halls and run grand social events. And me? My gift to you is that I am excited about making disciples, helping people to understand the teaching of Jesus, to follow him in their daily lives, and worship Him in their prayer lives. You will understand that a man who once stood in God’s presence and said “YES to everything!” might get a bit excited about this.
One or two of you here today will have made the same journey quite consciously and said to God, “Yes to everything”.
Quite a few of you have made this journey without realising it, and your heart has already said “Yes to everything” without putting it into quite those words.
But there will be those among us who are still afraid of what Jesus might ask of us, who say to God, “Yes, but only to the bits I feel comfortable with”. I was there once – for three years after becoming a Catholic, until I realised what God was really asking.
Listen to the words of Jesus:
‘The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life.’
The Good Shepherd offers each one of us the security of eternal life, but this comes with a condition: we must listen to the voice of Jesus, and we must follow.
It is always a struggle to say Yes to God. There is a special struggle in the hearts of those who are being called to ordained ministry and to the religious life, and I would like to invite you now to join me in praying a prayer, using the words of Blessed John Paul II, for those young people who are caught up in this struggle at this time:
Lord, Jesus, Christ, Good Shepherd of our souls, you who know your sheep and know how to reach the human heart.
Stir the hearts of those young people who would follow you, but who cannot overcome doubts and fears, and who in the end follow other voices and other paths which lead nowhere.
You who are the Word of the Father, the Word which enlightens and sustains hearts, conquer with your Spirit the resistance and delays of indecisive hearts; arouse in those whom you call the courage of love’s answer: “Here I am, send me!”